After years of selling identical Nurofen pills as ‘targeted’ pain killers, the huge drug company behind these allegedly deceptive claims finally faces its day of reckoning.
Since 2010, Reckitt Benckiser has been fighting to keep its premium-priced ‘pain-specific’ range on supermarket shelves, despite warnings they are a cynical money-grab and potentially dangerous.
On Thursday, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) launched a court battle against the company, alleging that the pain-specific claims made on Nurofen packets are false or misleading.
The watchdog did not crack down sooner because it hoped the company would cave to continued pressure and withdraw the over-the-counter drugs voluntarily.
“They haven’t, so we’re resorting to court action to achieve that outcome,” says ACCC chairman Rod Sims. “Consumers being misled on health issues is a major concern for us.”
Marketing claims risk overdose
To claim that the active ingredient, Ibuprofen, specifically targets pain “is like saying that the sprinklers in a burning building target the source of the fire”, says a pain medicine specialist.
What actually happens is that the drug “blankets” the body, thereby blocking pain wherever it occurs, Deakin University senior lecturer Dr Michael Vagg explains.
The biggest risk is that consumers might overdose on painkillers by taking one ‘type’ of Nurofen for a headache, another for back pain, and yet another for period pain, for example, potentially triggering “serious side effects”.
“If you took the maximum recommended dose from each of the four packets, you’d be way over the safe dose,” Dr Vagg says.
The company Reckitt Benckiser disputes all allegations.
“Nurofen pain-specific products provide easier navigation of pain-relief options in the grocery environment for consumers who are experiencing a particular type of pain,” the company says in a statement.
“Nurofen will continue to work with regulators to ensure its packaging continues to be fully aligned with all guidelines and requirements and still offer consumers with clear pain relief options for their pain type.”
Read the packet carefully
The drugs hit the spotlight in 2010 when consumer group CHOICE gave the company a Shonky Award.
The products can cost up to five times more than normal pain killers, despite there being no evidence that they work faster or better, CHOICE reported.
“We welcome the ACCC’s decision to crack down on dodgy pain pill claims,” said CHOICE spokesman Tom Godfrey.
“The message is clear for consumers – turn the pack over and look at the active ingredients.”
The ACCC has not taken action against similarly marketed products like Panadol and Medi Choice, but has not ruled this out.
“We certainly shall be looking at them,” ACCC chairman Rod Sims said.
“Hopefully this will send a wider deterrence message, but if that message doesn’t get through then we’ll just have to take more action.”
The Pharmaceutical Society of Australia (PSA) advises consumers to seek expert advice if they have concerns.
“It is important that consumers have confidence in their medications and that labelling provides an accurate and reliable guide for consumers,” PSA national president Grant Kardachi said.
Consumers can also ask their doctor or pharmacist about combining safe doses of Paracetamol and Ibuprofen if they need better pain relief.
Nova Pharmaceuticals Australasia (Medi Choice) and Glaxo Smith Klein (Panadol) did not respond to requests for comment.